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Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?

Friday, October 21st, 2016


[by Pauline Kaurin]

In reading and discussing Book I with my students, they were fascinated by the role of speeches and the ways in which the speeches seemed to drive action. This seemed counter-intuitive to my students who – amidst the general election season of 2016 – saw speeches, political rhetoric more generally as empty and meaningless exercises in candidate ego or manipulation by appeal to fear and other negative emotions.  I found this interesting because it demonstrates important differences between how the Greeks viewed and used political rhetoric and how we might view and use it today.

                To begin, the crisis caused by the Corcyareans and Corinthians results in a typical assembly being called and then the two sides make their respective cases by giving speeches.  (433/1) The Corcyareans  go first, and then the Corinthians make their case, largely by counter-arguing the previous case.  Thucydides then describes the actions taken by the Athenians in the aftermath of the speeches, making it clear that deliberation on the speeches (taking into account various factors including a change in public feeling) produced certain actions.

After the siege of Potidea, we have another round of accusations and fussing, then followed by more speeches, “ Last of all the Corinthians came forward, and having let those who preceded them inflame the Spartans, now followed…”  (1.67)  Athens weighs in as well, and then Sparta decides for war, and articulates the reasoning with a speech laying out what we might think of as Just Cause in the Just War Tradition.  One of the issues at stake is whether to go to war now, or whether they will be “men of action” or if the Spartans are stalling.  Book I, in fact, concludes with a speech from Perikles where he makes the case that ‘war is a necessity’ (1.144) and Thucydides notes that the Athenians were persuaded by his speech and voted and acted as he had suggested.

These highlights are designed to show that there is a pattern here: speeches and rhetoric are embedded within a larger process of reflection and deliberation that is oriented towards making a collective decision and then implementing it into action.  This is, I would argue, very characteristic of the classical Greek mind. We find this exact process laid out in Book III of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and it is reflected in many Platonic dialogues (like Meno, Crito, Phaedo and the Republic) where the occasion for the conversation about virtue, justice or death is some kind of decision or action that is being contemplated.

We should also recall the role of the Sophists in Athens and particularly in the development of Western philosophical traditions. They are frequently Socrates’ interlocutors and opponents, and their relativistic worldview is what Plato and Aristotle are positing their accounts of objective knowledge over and against. The Sophists were well known figures, traveling teachers who tutored the young Athenians in the art of rhetoric.  Rhetoric was an absolutely critical career skill for the young, free (and often wealthy) men of Athens to master, as their success in life (political and otherwise) was tied to it.  So rhetoric occupies a critical and prominent space in Greek (and especially Athenian) culture, as it was necessary for the political processes and as Thucydides points out, had a clear impact on what happened and how it happened.

So these observations are all very interesting but what of it? 

              The reason that I bring up the role of rhetoric here, especially in the context of the development of the Western philosophical traditions, is that I think my students’ reactions show a stark difference in how we view rhetoric today and Socrates helps us understand why.  It is not the case that speech and political rhetoric has no impact in our lives. We might think of the Gettysburg Address, JFK’s Inaugural speech. Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ speech, George Bush’s ‘A Thousand Points of Light’ speech, Barack Obama’s speech on race during the 2012 election or Michelle Obama’s convention speech from this summer.  Political rhetoric is alive and well, but I would argue serves a different function now.

For Plato especially, dialogue contra the Sophists, became not about deliberation to make a decision (his dialogues often frustratingly have no closure in that respect) , but as a mode of self-reflection in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.   With the exception of Reagan’s speech, the other speeches that we remember as a part of our political or personal life, those that resonate still, are not speeches that necessarily are aimed at action – except indirectly.  They are speeches that ask us to reflect on our sense of self (both individual and communal), that ask us to think about who we are and we want to be, very often in moral terms.  Most of these timeless speeches (judgement reserved for Michelle Obama as it is too soon) still have resonance because they connect to some aspect of the human condition, to our political life both in this moment and across time and are aspirational in some way.  They ask or challenge us to look beyond the current moment and decision/action cycle to something else – to truth and knowledge.

As we continue through Thucydides, I ask you to watch for this dynamic in the speeches.  What is the intent and effect of the speeches?

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Knowing Thyself and Knowing the Enemy

Friday, October 21st, 2016

[by Marc Opper]

The decision to go to war is one with which political leaders have grappled from time immemorial. An integral part of that decision involves an assessment of the political, economic, and military parameters by and belligerents of both themselves and their rivals. In Book I of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provides two speeches, one each by the leaders of Sparta and Athens, that reflect what was probably the consensus view of each side in the period immediately prior to the war [1]. In this post I use these speeches as a means to consider how political leaders perceive the world around them and draw on some examples temporally and geographically far-removed from Greece to illustrate the importance of ideology in shaping the decision to go to war and decisions on the strategies belligerents adopt in their pursuit of their goals.

Following the outbreak and conclusion of hostilities between Athens and Corinth over the latter’s colony Corcyra (1:24-1:54) and a series of conflicts between Sparta’s allies and Athens, the Spartans held an assembly of the Peloponnesian League at which they discussed the possibility of going to war with Athens. After speeches from both the Corinthians and the Athenians, the Spartan king Achidamus delivers a speech in which he does not foreclose the possibility of conflict, but emphasizes the importance of undertaking comprehensive preparations for a conflict against

…a people who live in a distant land, who have also an extraordinary familiarity with the sea, and who are in the highest state of preparation in every other department; with wealth private and public, with ships, and horses, and hoplites, and a population such as no one other Hellenic place can equal, and lastly a large number of tributary allies. (1:80:3)

He asserts the importance of monetary resources and states that

war is a matter not so much of arms as of money, which makes arms of use. And this is more than ever true in a struggle between a continental and a maritime power. First, then, let us provide money, and not allow ourselves to be carried away by the talk of our allies before we have done so: as we shall have the largest share of responsibility for the consequences be they good or bad, we have also a right to a tranquil inquiry respecting them

He strikes a remarkably humble tone when he states that

In practice we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school. (1:84:4)

The Spartans acknowledge their inferiority in resources and manpower in comparison to Athens, but believe those deficiencies can be overcome through adequate preparation.

The Athenian king, Pericles, is more verbose in his assessment of Athens and Sparta and far more confident than Achidamus:

As to the war and the resources of either party, a detailed comparison will not show you the inferiority of Athens. Personally engaged in the cultivation of their land, without funds either private or public, the Peloponnesians are also without experience in long wars across sea, from the strict limit which poverty imposes on their attacks upon each other. Powers of this description are quite incapable of often manning a fleet or often sending out an army: they cannot afford the absence from their homes, the expenditure from their own funds; and besides, they have not command of the sea. Capital, it must be remembered, maintains a war more than forced contributions. Farmers are a class of men that are always more ready to serve in person than in purse. Confident that the former will survive the dangers, they are by no means so sure that the latter will not be prematurely exhausted, especially if the war last longer than they expect, which it very likely will. In a single battle the Peloponnesians and their allies may be able to defy all Hellas, but they are incapacitated from carrying on a war against a power different in character from their own, by the want of the single council-chamber requisite to prompt and vigorous action, and the substitution of a diet composed of various races, in which every state possesses an equal vote, and each presses its own ends, a condition of things which generally results in no action at all. The great wish of some is to avenge themselves on some particular enemy, the great wish of others to save their own pocket. Slow in assembling, they devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile each fancies that no harm will come of his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (1:141:2-7)

The contrast between Achidamus and Pericles is stark because while the latter takes a more comprehensive view of the strengths and weaknesses of his side while the former dwells on the strengths alone. I wish to draw on an example relevant to my own work to show what how these different styles of analysis worked elsewhere.

Mao Zedong is rightly credited as being one of the most effective insurgents in modern history. The ability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to withstand assaults from the Japanese military in Northern and Central China during the Second World War (1937-1945) and its subsequent victory over the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang, KMT) demonstrated the wisdom of Mao’s strategic and political approach to revolutionary guerrilla warfare. The CCP’s post-1937 successes were in stark contrast to its complete defeat in Southern China, where between 1927 and 1934 it led an insurgency against the KMT.

The CCP’s failure in Southern China was a product of the overconfidence of the CCP’s leadership in its political and strategic position vis-à-vis the KMT. The CCP saw rural Chinese society as consisting of five socio-economic classes: (1) landlords, (2) rich peasants, (3) middle peasants, (4) poor peasants, and (5) rural laborers. Poor peasants were the numerical majority in the countryside and the CCP-established regime in Southern China, called the Chinese Soviet Republic, was established on a foundation of poor peasants and rural laborers. The CCP leadership believed that their allies in the countryside far outnumbered their enemies and that the force of their numbers and their zeal for revolution would be sufficient overcome the resistance of the KMT.

In 1925, Mao surveyed the fabric of Chinese society and asked: “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?”

All those in league with imperialism – the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, and the reactionary intellectual class, that is, the so-called big bourgeoisie in China – are our enemies, our true enemies. All the petty bourgeoisie, the semiproletariat, and the proletariat are our friends, our true friends. As for the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, its right wing must be considered our enemy; even if it is not yet our enemy, it will soon become so. Its left wing may be considered as our friend – but not as our true friend, and we must be constantly on our guard against it. How many are our true friends? There are 395 million of them. How many are our true enemies? There are one million of them. How many are there of these people in the middle who may either be our friends or our enemies? There are four million of them. Even if we consider these four million as enemies, this only adds up to a bloc of barely five million, and a sneeze from the 395 million would certainly suffice to blow them down. [2]

Though Mao’s own positions evolved considerably after this early analysis, those of his peers (and those who were in charge of the CCP at the time) did not [3]. The course of the revolution in Southern China ultimately proved the CCP wrong. The CCP’s myopic focus on the advantages of its own position and its unwillingness to countenance its potential and actual weaknesses drove it to double-down on strategies that were counterproductive to its cause. Its focus on poor peasants alienated both the rural middle class and rural elites, two crucial groups who eventually defected to the KMT when the CCP’s military was defeated.

The CCP’s military defeat was a product of similarly myopic thinking. Militarily, the CCP initially combined a number of tactics pioneered by Mao Zedong: (1) “strengthening the defenses and clearing the fields” (jianbi qingye); evacuating civilians from areas within striking distance of KMT forces, removing any food or livestock of which the KMT could make use, and destroying infrastructure critical to the KMT war effort such as roads and bridges. It then (2) lured the enemy into areas under its control (youdi shenru), but did not initially engage. Instead, it waited for them to disperse and then overpowered smaller units and attacked KMT reinforcements. After Mao was removed from his post by his political rivals within the CCP, the Red Army adopted conventional tactics, concentrating its forces and sending them into pitched battles of attrition against conventional KMT forces. The results were catastrophic and eventually sent the CCP on a 9,000 kilometer retreat known as the Long March.

After Mao took control of the CCP, he undertook a comprehensive reform of Party policy [4]. The philosophical foundation of Mao’s approach to both military and political policy is “On Practice,” a 1937 essay in which Mao states in no uncertain terms that

Marxists hold that man’s social practice alone is the criterion of the truth of his knowledge of the external world…If a man wants to succeed in his work, that is, to achieve the anticipated results, he must bring his ideas into correspondence with the laws of the objective external world; if they do not correspond, he will fail in his practice. After he fails, he draws his lessons, corrects his ideas to make them correspond to the laws of the external world, and can thus turn failure into success; this is what is meant by ‘failure is the mother of success’ and ‘a fall into the pit, a gain in your wit.’ [5]

Mao’s statements may seem like common sense, but Mao did more than enumerate a dialectical relationship between theory and practice; he institutionalized them in the CCP and the Red Army. As a result, generals and commanders could utilize the tactics that best fit the situation they faced and administrators could formulate policy that both adhered to the spirit of the CCP’s United Front policies and conformed to local conditions [6]. At the CCP center, Mao and his colleagues emphasized the importance of formulating policy based on a comprehensive and realistic analysis of the CCP’s political and military programs. The rejection of dogmatism at the center was mirrored at the local level, ensuring that sober analysis rather than blind faith guided the implementation of policy.

Fellow contributor Cheryl Rofer highlighted the stark disjunction between the perceptions of American policymakers in the run-up to the Iraq War and the reality of the war and occupation on the ground and the perception of Russian policymakers prior to their intervention in Syria and the reality on the ground. The verdict has yet to be written on the latter, but analyses of the US’s intervention in Iraq have rightfully condemned the US’s complete lack of proper planning. Optimistic assessments by men like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney (both quoted by Cheryl in her post) are illustrative of an approach to strategic analysis that overestimates advantages and minimizes potential problems. While that may not guarantee ultimate defeat in a war, it is certainly not a recipe for success.




[1] In his introduction to The Landmark Thucydides, Victor Hanson notes the tension between “contrivance (‘to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them’) and historical exactitude (‘adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said’)” in the speeches Thucydides includes in The Peloponnesian War. Accepting that the contents may not be verbatim transcripts of what the orators said, Thucydides includes the speeches to which I refer in this post as a means to illustrate, among other things, the beliefs and preferences of the main actors in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Edited by Richard Crawley. New York: Free Press, 1996, pg. xv-xvi, xxii-xxiii.

[2] Mao Zedong. 1925. “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society.” In Stuart R. Schram and Nancy J. Hodes, eds. Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949: Volume II: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1994. Pg. 249.

[3] This period in Chinese history is best covered by Womack, Brantly. The Foundations of Mao Zedong’s Political Thought, 1917-1935. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1982. See also Rue, John E. Mao Tse-Tung in Opposition, 1927-1935. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966. Huang, Philip C. C. “Mao Tse-Tung and the Middle Peasants, 1925-1928.” Modern China 1, no. 3 (1975): 271–96.

[4] The best account of Mao’s rise to power after the Soviet period is Gao Hua ??. Hong taiyang shi zenyang shengqi de: Yan’an zhengfeng yundong de lailong qumai [How the Red Sun Rose: A History of the Yan’an Rectification Movement]. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2000.

[5] Mao Zedong. 1937. “On Practice.” In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Vol. 1. Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1961. Pg. 296.

[6] For a general discussion of the United Front, see Van Slyke, Lyman P. Enemies and Friends: The United Front in Chinese Communist History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. For a discussion of the United Front in practice during the Second World War in Northern China, see Selden, Mark. China in Revolution: The Yenan Way Revisited. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: It Would Be A Great War

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

[by Cheryl Rofer]



My approach to Thucydides, or any other ancient book, is almost diametrically opposite to Tanner Greer’s. It is indeed fascinating to contemplate how people thought in another time, the differences from today’s thinking, to put oneself in the mind of another. I try to do all those things from time to time, but my emphasis is often different.

After suffering through the archaic language of Julius Caesar and Macbeth in high school, I made an agreement with my English teacher: I would not read Hamlet, and he would give me a D for that report period. It seemed fair enough to me. Fighting through the language made it impossible for me to see anything else Shakespeare offered, when there were books I could read and enjoy that contained as much wisdom.

There are reasons to read the classics: to be on the same page with others who have incorporated them into their thinking, and to learn the lessons of difference that Greer describes and the lessons of similarity that I will concentrate on. I have not read Thucydides before, so my essays will be first impressions, overlaid with what I’ve read about Thucydides from more current authors. And yes, I will pluck out themes that still resonate today.


Greer mentions a fact that I could not shake as I read through Book One: that these were very small groups of men compared to what we think of as war in today’s world, although there may be comparisons to the ongoing war in Ukraine’s Donbas, and perhaps to some of the wars in Africa. Possibly all the factions in Syria. Another fact is that deliberations and execution of wars were by men alone, in a society that viewed women as not terribly different from slaves.

But some things remain the same. Victor Davis Hanson points to one, from Thucydides’s opening words:

…it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.

Hanson points out that

the Peloponnesian War was a twenty-seven-year nightmare that wrecked Greece.

Great, of course, does not carry positive connotations only. It can mean more than large, enormous, as in the European name for World War I, the Great War, which is perhaps Thucydides’s meaning.

For a historian, both meanings can apply. Thucydides hit the academic jackpot, still being read almost 2500 years after he wrote. Others, too, can benefit from a war: Vendors of war materiel, those who can attach their political programs to the war, and thrill seekers.

There is also the difference between perception and reality. It is easy to consider a war great in the positive sense, engaging, bringing fame and honor, uplifting, before it starts. We will put the wrongdoers in their place. Our technological capabilities, our vigor and bravery, our strategies cannot but prevail.

From Pericles’s speech beginning at 1.141.432.1:

As to the war and the resources of either party, a detailed comparison will not show you the inferiority of Athens. Personally engaged in the cultivation of their land, without funds either private or public, the Peloponnesians are also without experience in long wars across sea, from the strict limit which poverty imposes on their attacks on each other. Powers of this description are quite incapable of often manning a fleet or often sending out an army: they cannot afford the absence from their homes, the expenditure from their own funds; and besides, they have not command of the sea.


Did not our fathers resist the Persians not only with resources far different from ours, but even when those resources had been abandoned; and more by wisdom than by fortune, more by daring than by strength, did not they beat off the barbarian and advance their affairs to the present height? We must not fall behind them, but must resist our enemies in any way and in every way, and attempt to hand down our power to our posterity unimpared.

This has an all too familiar ring. Analytical psychologists call it motivated reasoning: adducing the favorable evidence while leaving out the unfavorable. But war is uncertain and contains surprises. Pericles recognizes this uncertainty at the beginning of this speech and brushes it aside:

For sometimes the course of things is as arbitrary as the plans of man; indeed this is why we usually blame chance for whatever does not happen as we expected.

World War I was welcomed by many Europeans as a way to regain a lost virility and vigor. Enthusiasm for it was shared by the governments, the young men who would die, and their sweethearts.

Ernst Jünger in Storm of Steel: “We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war.”

General Friederich von Bernhardi, Prussian general and military historian, bestselling author: War is “a biological necessity,” “the natural law, upon which all the laws of Nature rest, the law of the struggle for existence.”

The reality of that war and the war after shocked people out of a public love for war, but the inclination remains.

Paul Wolfowitz anticipated an easy victory in Iraq in 2003:

There has been a good deal of comment — some of it quite outlandish — about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army — hard to imagine. (House Budget Committee testimony on Iraq February 27, 2003)

There’s a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon. (Congressional Testimony, March 27, 2003)

Similarly, Vice President Dick Cheney:

The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that. (Meet The Press with Tim Russert, March 16, 2003)

[In response to “We have not been greeted as liberators.”] “Well, I think we have by most Iraqis. I think the majority of Iraqis are thankful for the fact that the United States is there, that we came and we took down the Saddam Hussein government. (Meet The Press with Tim Russert, September 14, 2003)

More recently, Vladimir Putin put the Russian military into Syria for the few months he believed it would take to help Bashar al-Assad take control back. That was a year ago. The Duma just voted to keep a military presence in Syria for the indefinite future. In between, there were a couple of attempts to end that presence, both unsuccessful. One may imagine assurances from the generals in the summer of 2015 that sounded very much like Pericles’s. Or Putin’s confidence that the Russian-speakers of the Donbas would welcome the chance to associate with the mother country.

There are many more examples. The impassioned pleas that if only the United States would intervene more forcefully in Syria – specifics unknown – also represents this faith in war as the answer.

Before the fighting starts, an honest analysis may even favor one’s own side. Often both sides are willing to wage war, as Thucydides documents, which should give pause to analysts. Motivated reasoning plays its part. Ignoring the many openings for what Pericles sells short as “chance” also helps provide an optimistic analysis. War seems like a way to bring about a decisive ending to an unfortunate situation. It provides a testing ground for manhood and national pride.

It would be a great war.


Photo: Soldiers marching through Epsom, UK, during World War I.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: How Group Dynamics Brought Sparta and Athens to War

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

1GR-12-E1-B -------------------- D: -------------------- Das Zeitalter des Perikles / Foltz Perikles, athen. Politiker, um 500 v. Chr. - 429 v.Chr. - "Das Zeitalter des Perikles". - (Versammlung der bedeutendsten Kuenstler, Dichter und Philosophen der Zeit). Druck, spaetere Kolorierung, nach dem Gemaelde, 1852 ff., von Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877). -------------------- F: -------------------- L'epoque de Pericles / Foltz Pericles, homme politique athenien, vers 500 av. J.-C. - 429 av. J.-C. - "Das Zeitalter des Perikles" (L'epoque de Pericles). - (Rassemblement des artistes, poetes et philosophes les plus connus de l'epoque). Impr., coloriee post., d'ap. le tableau, 1852, de Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877).

[By Joe Byerly]

In Book 1 of The Landmark Thucydides the council of citizens in Sparta gather to hear the Corinthians, the Athenians, King Archidamus, and one of the ephors debate whether or not Sparta should go to war with Athens. It is within this scene that we witness a psychological phenomenon called “Group Think”; ultimately ending in a declaration of war.

After several of the sides had spoken their piece, the ephor, Sthenelaidas rose to address the group. He quickly dismissed the logical arguments of Archidamus, who thought that the decision to go to war should be deliberate and made only after the Spartans were better prepared to face the Athenians. Instead, Sthenelaidis appealed to the assembly’s emotions, calling for them to “Vote therefore, Spartans for war, as the honor of Sparta demands, and neither allow for further aggrandizement of Athens, nor betray our allies to ruin, but with the gods let us advance against the aggressors.”

To understand the significance of what happened next, we must first understand how the Spartans traditionally voted. In J.E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins the author writes:

“For decisions on matters such as war and peace, Lycurgus had given the Spartan also an assembly of citizens, which voted not by show of hands as at Athens, but by shouting, and the presiding ephor decided which shout was louder.”

Instead of allowing the vote to take place in accordance with Spartan tradition, the ephor asked the crowd to divide. He pointed to a place in the assembly hall and asked all Spartans in favor of war to move to that spot. He then pointed out another location in the assembly hall, and asked those in favor of peace to move to that spot. Here is where the group gains power over the individual and in this instance drove the Spartans to war.

Research has shown that groups can impact individual decision-making when anonymity is reduced; which is what happened when the method of voting switched from yelling within a crowd to having the voters physically divide themselves. Thucydides believed that Sthenelaidas understood this because he writes that he switched the method of voting because, “he wished to make them declare their opinion openly and thus to increase their ardor for war.”

How could Spartans have potentially avoided the pitfalls of group think? In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, authors Sunstein and Hastie recommend the Delphi Method:

“This approach, developed at the RAND Corporation during the cold war, mixes the virtues of individual decision making with social learning. Individuals offer first-round estimates (or votes) in complete anonymity. Then a cycle of re-estimations (or repeated voting) occurs, with a requirement that second-round estimates have to fall within the middle quartiles (25%–75%) of the first round. This process is repeated—often interspersed with group discussion—until the participants converge on an estimate. A simple (and more easily administered) alternative is a system in which ultimate judgments or votes are given anonymously but only after deliberation. Anonymity insulates group members from reputational pressures and thus reduces the problem of self-silencing.”

One is left to wonder what might have happened if the ephor did not manipulate the voting method to push the Spartans toward war. Could the Peloponnesian War have been avoided? Or could the Spartans have bought more time and better prepared for the conflict with Athens? This vignette from Book 1 serves as a warning for leaders who attempt to make critical decisions based on the consensus of groups. Understanding these dynamics is the best way for leaders to safe guard against the pitfalls of group think.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: THE BROKEN REED

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

[Jim Lacey]

As this roundtable moves forward I may not say as much as many, but I am going to try and focus on ideas or concepts that are rarely hear discussed.

As my first item I would like everyone to think a bit about Corcyra.

As most of you know, Thucydides gives many reasons for the Peloponnesian War before boiling them all down to Spartan fear of Athens’ growing power.  But, if one requires a proximate cause for the conflict it was Athens joining Corcyra in its quarrel with Corinth.

But why did Athens care about the fate of Corcyra?  Thucydides answers:

For it began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian War was only a question of time, and no one was willing to see a naval power of such magnitude as Corcyra sacrificed to Corinth… At the same time the island seemed to be conveniently on the coasting path to Sicily. (1.44)

The Corcyraeans themselves had made this argument when they begged Athens for aid:

Remember that there are but three considerable naval powers in Hellas, Athens, Corinth and Corcyra, and that if you allow two of these three to become one, and Corinth to secure for herself, you will have to hold the sea against the united fleets of Corcyra and the Peloponnesus.  But if you receive us, you will have our ships to reinforce you in the struggle.  (1.36)

Indeed!  This is truly a tremendous strategic incentive.

By allying with Corcyra, Athens could add 120 ships to her fleet.  This addition, coupled with Corcyra’s strategic position along the shipping lanes between Greece and Sicily-Italy, meant the Delian League would dominate the western seas, as it did the Aegean.  Corinth, the Peloponnesus’s great trading power, could be easily blockaded, Sparta and its allies would be cut off from Sicily’s and Italy’s wheat, and Corcyra could be counted on to joint Athens in raids along the enemy coast.

But war, as Thucydides informs us, is an “affair of chances.”  Chances from which neither side is exempt, and who’s events are “risked in the dark.” (1.78).

But, Athens was so sure of Corcyra’s power that they sent a mere 10 ships (later reinforced by 20 more), out of over 300 that could easily have been outfitted.  It is worth noting that with the exception of the Syracuse expedition, this was a typical Athenian failure – sending a boy-sized force for a man-sized job (See the Battle of Mantinea in Book 5).  In this case, they sent a fleet large enough to greatly anger the Peloponnesians, but too puny to attain any strategic effect.

In the event, Athens’ strategic rationale for joining themselves to Corcyra was swept away in the conflict’s first engagement (1.49-52).  In just one day’s battle Corcyra lost almost 70 ships – better than half the fleet. (1.54).  Even if they had the wealth to replace the lost ships, they could never replace the thousands of skilled sailors drowned, struck down, or captured that day.  They would have found themselves in a similar situation to that of the Ottomans after the Battle of Lepanto, where the lost ships were replaced in a single year, but the crippling loss of 50,000 professional seamen was never made good.

But Corcyra never even replaced the ships.  Instead the city soon fell into a period of instability, anarchy, and eventually, civil war (Book 3).  In a single and mostly forgotten battle (Sybota) Athens saw its strongest ally removed from the board.  An ally, that if it had maintained its power and internal stability, would have greatly eased the burden of attacking Sicily, or possibly even have made that expedition unnecessary.

Instead, Athens, at the very onset of the struggle, had bonded itself to a “broken reed” whose only later contribution to the war-effort was to have their city act as an assembly point for the Syracuse expedition (6.42).  Even then, Corcyra’s only material contribution to the expedition were a few sailors who were likely “compelled” to join the Athenian fleet.  (7.26).

DISCUSS: Allying with Corcyra was Athens first strategic mistake of the war… one that it never recovered from.

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